Where do vegetable transplants come from?

foodMillions of vegetable transplants will be purchased this spring, and there’s a good chance many of them got their start in a Virginia greenhouse.

The greenhouse and nursery industry is the fifth-largest segment of Virginia’s farm economy, generating $251 million in sales each year. Sixty-nine greenhouse operations raise vegetable transplants in the Old Dominion, selling baby tomato, pepper and other vegetable plants each spring to farms and retail chains, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

“Our orders come to us from our customers, and they determine their orders based on what they think homeowners are going to want to plant in their gardens this season,” said Greg Gordon, co-owner of Aarons Creek Farms Inc. in Mecklenburg County. “Once we’ve received the orders, our computer system compiles them, and they’re sent to our seed room where we will actually put the seeds into the trays and start the process.”

The family-owned business started in 1964 and has grown to 71 greenhouses with 300,000 square feet under glass. The entire complex is heated with locally cut firewood. Operated by Gordon and his brother, it produces perennials, annuals and commercial transplants for farmers as well as retailers.

While the greenhouse employs several dozen workers, most are seasonal, and an operation of this size requires some automation. Once the seedlings planted with a vacuum seeding machine have reached an inch or so of growth, the 512 new plants in a starter tray are moved to larger trays.

“We use our robotic transplanter with 32 mechanical fingers to transfer them to bedding flat trays like you’d see in a garden center,” Gordon said.

Then it’s back out to the greenhouse for a couple more weeks of steady light, warm temperatures and just enough water. That’s also when workers insert tags with basic growing tips.

The Aarons Creek Farms operation is featured this month on Real Virginia, the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s weekly television program. It can be viewed on public television stations across most of Virginia as well as many local cable access channels, on satellite channel RFD-TV and at VaFarmBureau.org.

 
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